Beyond Beijing’s Advances, Kashmir in South Asia’s Shifting Sands

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After Dragon resurfaced at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and forced New Delhi to move cavalry after cavalry to the cold desert, a Ladakhi leader said that it was the abrogation of Article 370 which provoked Beijing. Amid debates on the emerging situation at LAC, many wonder, is Kashmir changing the pulse of politics in South Asia.

AS military convoys are once again rumbling on Srinagar-Leh highway, the native voices are amplifying their concern on the Dragon’s sudden cravings for the ‘godforsaken land’ known for its strategic significance.

Ladakh’s ex-lawmaker, Deldan Namgyal, believes that the redrawn political map of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh post the abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A has “provoked China to intensify its incursions”.

“The recent stand-off between the China’s PLA and Indian Army is very threatening and the situation is very serious in the area,” the Ladakhi politician said, while holding New Delhi responsible for “failing to keep good diplomatic ties” with the neighbouring country.

Even experts believe that the last summer’s unilateral step has further aggravated the complex strategic environment of South Asia, the region believed to be the most militarized zone on the planet where two nuclear opponents, India and Pakistan, are competing for an arms race.

Kashmir being a pending political dispute in the region, many believe, is only pitting nuke-armed nations against each other and threatening the peace of the entire South Asia.

Stance of ‘Iron Brothers’

With the scrapping of semi autonomous status of the region partly ruled by New Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing, the already strong relations between the two “all-weather friends” and “iron brothers”—Pakistan and China—have apparently become sturdier.

Apart from joint-military drills, the two countries have accelerated progress on the ambitious and strategically-significant China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) since last year.

After slashing the funding for CPEC projects by 60 percent in its budget, Islamabad on August 8, 2019—three days after the abrogation of Article 370—announced plans to set up a body to accelerate projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Islamabad also approved the framework of Gwadar Special Economic District and the formation of the National Coastal Development Authority, which would construct tourist resorts near Gwadar. A centerpiece of CPEC, the Gwadar city port is operated by a Chinese company.

“Following CPEC, China is clearly desiring a greater role in Kashmir,” Manoj Kewalramani, a policy analyst at Chinese Studies at the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore, told Kashmir Observer.

“It’s also evident by the 2019 August meetings of Chinese foreign minister with his Indian and Pakistani counterparts.”

Kashmir in South Asia

As a self-avowed “Ambassador of Kashmir”, Prime Minister Imran Khan has already put Kashmir issue in front of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Nations Coronavirus Conference in March this year.

And since Kashmir dispute is the pivotal point of Indo-Pak rivalry which, according to researcher Dr. Syed Shahbaz Hussain, has further aggravated the complex strategic environment of South Asia, Islamabad is counting on Beijing to press New Delhi over the Kashmir issue.

And it seemed to be working, experts say, since the United Nation Security Council took up developments in Kashmir after China called for repeated meetings since last year.

Beijing, many say, got activated and involved following New Delhi’s hard stand on the disputed region.

On August 6, 2019, while moving a resolution in the Lok Sabha for abrogating Article 370, Home Minister Amit Shah said, “Mr. Speaker, I want to put this in record that whenever I say the state of Jammu & Kashmir in the House then both PoK and Aksai Chin are a part of it.”

He also mentioned that the boundaries of J&K mentioned in the Constitution of India and also in the Constitution of Kashmir included Pakistan administered Kashmir and Aksai Chin.

“The claim over Aksai Chin by India was a communication to the outside world with words,” believes Ahsan I. Butt, Associate Professor at Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University. “And now China is communicating with force. But it’s all part of the same conversation.”

In a perfect world, Prof. Butt told Kashmir Observer, there’re many flexible options like semi-sovereign status for Kashmir where free movement and trade is allowed with peacekeeping on the borders by the Indian and the Pakistani government.

“You could be as creative as you want, but without political will, nothing is possible,” emphasized the professor.

A New Strategic Shadow

After the insistent Sino-India Ladakh faceoff, Uncle Sam’s Afghanistan departure is likely to cast a new shadow on Kashmir.

With the withdrawal of American forces from five bases in Afghanistan, experts say, there’re chances of some implications in the valley—the event which Islamabad has been forecasting since long now. The historic Kabul-Kashmir ties only seem to compliment the claim.

When Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, many Afghan war veterans entered Kashmir and powered insurgency against New Delhi’s rule.

“If the present regime falls in Kabul,” said Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor of International Studies, at Jawahar Lal Nehru University, “it will once again become a training school for new crop of insurgents.”

Since people don’t seem to have a say in the decisions in current India, Prof Rajagopalan told Kashmir Observer, the whole concept of Kashmir has changed.

“What used to be Kashmir as a whole, has now become different regions — Jammu, Ladakh, Aksai Chin. And this is where it has become too complicated.”

Dialogue Way Forward

The best possible thing for Kashmir is to start a dialogue with Pakistan, believes Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

“India needs to go back to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh formula to solve the issue prevailing in the valley,” Prof Swain told Kashmir Observer.

He stressed that New Delhi should start a democratic process in Kashmir as the local unionist leaders have lost their popular support after the abrogation of Article 370.

“The government should try to create an environment where Kashmiri people do not feel that they are losing their state and identity,” suggested the professor.

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Swati Joshi

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